“Harlan Ellison Afterworld”
You can’t stop what’s coming. Heroes you’ve grown up with reaching venerable age is a fact hard to contend with. I’ve been dreading this day for some time between friends since Harlan Ellison (also known as Unca Harlan) was no longer able to communicate these last four years via the Art Deco Dining Pavillion, and it sure as hell hurt when it happened. I remember him once saying “If no one remembers Eric Knight (see – the writer of Lassie if you didn’t know), what the hell chance do I have?” Well, a good chance, because we (writers) don’t forget important people when they truly do matter.
My title speaks to that feeling when certain cultural figures leave us that there may (will) be a collapse in quality and depth in the culture, or “as long as so and so is around” that “shit won’t fly.” The mere fact that someone is still alive even if in torpor can have this effect. I’m thinking back for instance when Kurt Cobain passed and how quickly the Green Days of the world descended upon us. The feeling that if there is some strong figure ready to pounce on what the industry wants to pass off as culture, there is hope. Even with Harlan’s last bad years there was still a presence to demand writers be paid, to defend copyright protection, to call bullshit when he sees it (when others who knew better didn’t), etc. There are still stalwart champions of critical culture (though they dwindle) but it does feel like the end is upon us.
It has been noted that Harlan said, “For a brief time I existed, and for a brief time I mattered.” And that in the end all writers hope that they achieve some good in the world. Yes, Harlan Ellison did both and much more. In the one place H.E. hated almost more than anything – the internet – his retort against that being Ellison Webderland – is the only place I found much announcement of his passing. The Media itself – The Glass Teat – (which would not have surprised him) was of course too busy with more mass shootings, mock-congressional hearings, the next Supreme Court nominee, and their favorite teat of all, President Trump. On-line there have been obituaries from fans and friends. The SyFy Channel is the only network I know of that made this news available (and ironic since H.E. hated the term, much less the network). And so we have and here is mine.
My initial comment was “and another light goes out and into the monolith.” Despite H.E.’s less than favorable review of 2001 in Ellison is Watching, this is what it is. We have lost a light. Death is an odyssey into the unknown—a monolith. Harlan is one of my favorite writers because we got the totality of his whole being. As an inspiration he made it clear – a writer is a sponge – you soak up as much as you can then and let it out onto the page. The writing – Strange Wine and Deathbird Stories shake me to this day. But it was also what he said about writing, about our life, our 20th century, our future, all of it. He was one of the few who never separated politics from the work, in the Orwellian tradition. Something I once remarked was held by a fearless trinity of Pinter (Harold) – Freed (Donald) – Ellison. (Of the many things they have in common – an F.B.I. file on their “seditious” activities…) And but now we have only one of them. But it was also the collecting, the art, the toys, the comics, you know what I’m talking about and you know you want to be in the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars and that comic-book room (or build one of your own). And more – everything is an argument! Yes. The curmudgeon and argumentative soul. The tough pill to swallow. The pain in the ass. The man of letters. Couldn’t ask for more as a literary hero. I just want to throw this out there, he was so much more than “Repent Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman” and the writer of Star Trek “The City on the Edge of Forever.”
A comic book collector and scholar. When he had to sell some of the collection (as we all sometimes must do) to help pay a friend’s legal fees I chipped in and proudly have Harlan Ellison’s Issue #1 of Kamandi (and others).
He was also a comic book writer (and very recently at that) with a love of artists. If you haven’t read 7 Against Chaos with Paul Chadwick and Ken Steacy, get on it.
Some of us were fortunate enough to be members of the “The Rabbit Hole” – all of this held together by Susan’s tireless work. No different then what Ellie Frazetta had done for Frank (Or Patty is still doing for Donald). The Rabbit Hole let us dive deep into Harlan’s Universe. I hope those letters still continue. It was through that membership and correspondence I was bestowed with one hell of a 40th birthday present collection, inscribed with his signature. If you want to know Harlan you’ve got to get The Hornbook: “Did Your Mother Throw Yours out..?” “The Song the Sixties Sang…” Here is the man. If you want an uncensored record of the late 20th century America this is it.
He wrote a script for I, Robot long before that hack-version with Will Smith was a gleam in anyone’s eye. He was one hell of a convincing voice-actor (and actor) if you’ve had the pleasure of listening to the recording of Run For The Stars.
Even more was the Art Deco Dining Pavillion, where, if you were lucky, Harlan might respond to you. I will never forget this one. (Harlan started his career off as the young one, surrounded by the great luminaries of the speculative fiction field, and in the end, he was the old one, one of the last to remember those before and to perhaps give us a glimpse of how it may have been.) So… if you want to know something about Fritz Leiber, why not ask Unca Harlan?
Wayland, MI – Wednesday, September 28 2011 17:42:41
You might be one of the few writers living who knew Fritz Leiber. I’d like to ask you if a characterization of him had some truth to it. The Fafhrd and Mouser sagas are seared into my memory as are his dark ladies Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness. Moon Duel was another cool story I’ll never forget and his essays were a convincing brew of intellect and humor. But few reads for me are as sustainably enjoyable as the two ill-met comrade swordsmen – the first real dynamic duo in my mind – and the wet, night-smog filled streets of Lankhmar . My question is this: I don’t know if this was Fritz Leiber’s quote but I read once that Fafhrd was his alter-ego and the Mouser that of his friend Harry Otto Fischer. Did you ever see or notice a bit of the ‘ol red-headed barbarian in Mr. Leiber?
– Thursday, September 29 2011 20:32:42
REPLY TO MICHAEL MILLER
re: FRITZ LEIBER
I don’t quite know how to answer your question directly.
Perhaps one of Fritz’s biographers would be better at this chore than I.
Simply put, Fritz Leiber was the firmament for me. Not merely as a writer, but as a man. Simply put, we knew each other quite well; he was far older than I, knew more of the universe than I; and had much to say to me. I listened…as a chit of paving stone waits for the sound of the raindrop to fall, waiting stupidly for the sound the impact it knows will be made. Simply put, I loved him with all the fervor that I could, or now can, muster.
There is a photograph on my personal “wall of fame” here at the house, that when I go up to my office, I look at every day, as I climb the Art Deco Staircase where it prominently hangs. Here is what is in that photo. It will not answer your question.
Fritz and I have both won large awards, which are on the table
between us, and we are sitting there, our hands clasped on the tablecloth, looking into each other’s face, smiling, chatting, and all I need know of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (since I bought TWO SOUGHT ADVENTURE in 1957 in the Gnome Press hardcover 1st edition, for $3.00) is that he was the gentlest, most congenial, somber sometimes, jovial and gracious always, good-with-an-epee (because we dueled) savant and gentleman I have ever known. Deponent swallows hard, eyes moist.
Simply put, sir, to say that I would have crawled on hands and knees through broken glass to the 8th and Inner Circle of Hell just to bring him a moist towel for his forehead, is to write so ovwrblown and bloviating that my dear Fritz would tsk-tsk me.
I have no idea which was whom, as you ask. But.
One of us was one, hoping to be as good as the other. The other was already both, and better than anyone else.
There was Fritz Leiber.
And there was no other.
I’m sorry I cannot do better for you. It was a lovely question; and I still miss him every day.
Respectfully, Harlan Ellison
He also chewed my ass out once for igniting an incendiary discussion of Dhalgren and his original review of Delaney’s novel (because it was “on the internet!!!!!!”) which lead to an introspective recant of sorts. My regrets? Sure. Can’t think of how many times I’ve wanted to go to the Aztec Temple… I lived in Sherman Oaks but never did… How many times I wanted to go back and visit but never thought… How many documentaries about Ellison I might pitch to friends to go there… to get a chance to sit in that hand-chair Mick Jagger sat in… but more seriously I was about to send him an old photo I came across, a very young H.E. and his old friend Robert Bloch… but it wasn’t meant to be…
So as I always say when we lose a great one… runes to your memory! Harlan Ellison was the beast that shouted love at the heart of the world. Though he would likely disagree and say we die and push up daisies, I like to hope that Harlan Ellison is still watching.
Michael D Miller, 6/28/18